All signs point to another banner year for the Vancouver Whitecaps, heading into their March 4 game against the Montreal Impact, which will see the team’s biggest crowd for a season opener since it started playing back in 1974.
The Major League Soccer franchise’s success on and off the field also has local restaurants and pubs salivating at the prospect of 18 home games slated until October 18 when the team closes out the regular season against the Portland Timbers. This includes 15 weekend games (three on Friday, eight on Saturday and four on Sunday) that will likely fill downtown food and beverage establishments with fans both before and after matches.
Dustan Sept, marketing director for Central City Brewers + Distillers, said since Central City opened on Beatty Street in 2016, the business has watched the Whitecaps crowd at the pub grow each season. Central City is about a two-minute walk from BC Place stadium.
“Vancouver has become more of a fan of the Whitecaps and more of soccer as a whole,” Sept said. “There’s a broader and stronger fan base, and we’ve built more awareness with that, and become, not necessarily a clubhouse, but a go-to spot.”
Graham Ramsay, senior director of business for BC Place, said management has tailored the stadium’s food offerings over the past few seasons to fit what is “more of a younger and urban crowd” than BC Lions fans. He noted the new menu items for this season include a barbecue Korean chicken bowl, a chickpea bowl and more craft beer selections. Ramsay said each Whitecaps game is staffed by about 400 people, including employees of Centerplate Inc., a food and beverage catering company.
“They have been very successful in building a great game experience,” said Ramsay, who’s been working for BC Place since 1993, adding that since the Whitecaps came to the stadium in 2011, the club’s management has worked hard to create an identity that fans can get behind.
Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the British Columbia Restaurant & Food Services Association, said the Whitecaps are a strong driver of business for hospitality companies.
“Soccer is sexy,” Tostenson said. “There’s a lot of followers right now. And I think the more that happens, the more we’re going to see people downtown. The millennial attraction to soccer, it does have some effects on where people go.
“There is that traditional pub crowd, the burger and fries and a beer, and then you’ll see a lot of places around the stadium, such as pho and Asian fusion, or places that have good craft beer. There are a lot of independents that are going to do well with this as [Whitecaps fans] are a little more inventive and experimental.”
The major sports franchises downtown – the Vancouver Canucks, the BC Lions and the Whitecaps – have a combined total of 68 home games per season. Tostenson said each team’s home games bring a different flavour of fandom to downtown.
“I bet you if we could do the research, hockey is kind of the corporate crowd, and people are inclined to get to the rink, eat there, have a drink and head home. Football is more sort of an adventure, and I bet you they would eat more at the stadium. And I bet you the soccer crowd is much more dispersed; they’re probably hanging around a little bit longer. I bet you there is more food sold in restaurants around soccer than the other two sports.”
Peter Tingling, associate dean of the undergraduate program at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business, who researches the business and analytics side of sports, said the Whitecaps overall rise in Vancouver is tied to the fortunes of the sport as a whole.
“Worldwide, globally, soccer is a phenomenon, and it’s on the rise,” he said. “Soccer has a lot of intrinsic advantages as a sport, and it appeals to a lot of demographics.”
Tingling added that as the world becomes more connected via the internet, soccer has a leg up on hockey and football because its popularity spans virtually every continent. World Atlas estimates there are four billion soccer fans, and neither hockey nor football ranked in the top 10 for most sports fans across the world.
“Partly, it’s globalization,” he said of the Whitecaps rise in Vancouver. “Soccer is played in almost every country, and you just can’t compete with that.”